The two bookshelves are huge, about five feet wide and almost touching the ceiling.
They hover over the office, crammed full of books ranging from the deeply analytical How Children Think and Learn to the perfectly playful The Little Red Hen.
The books give more than just a glimpse of the work Kathleen Martin believes to be important. They are the windows to her passion.
“I love reading and getting other people excited about reading,” says Martin, an assistant professor of education who thinks it a tragedy when children do not learn to read or love to read.
Martin has spent 30 years teaching a love for reading. She’s done it as a librarian, as a pre-school teacher and as a former director of UAB’s Child Development Center, among other capacities. And it’s the youngest among us Martin believes is the most important to reach.
Martin and Kay Emfinger, an assistant professor of education, are completing a three-year study of early reading in the Bessemer area, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Early Reading First, part of President Bush’s “Good Start, Grow Smart” initiative, is designed to transform existing early education programs into centers of excellence that provide high-quality, early education to young children, especially those from low-income families. The intent is to prepare young children to enter kindergarten with the language, cognitive and early reading skills to prevent reading difficulties and ensure school success.
Helping a community like Bessemer “was our primary motivation,” Martin says. “There are not many dollars available for preschools. This was a way to get funding to invest in an area of need in our community.”
The early returns of the study have been encouraging. “We’ve had some good results,” Martin says.
The children tested in the study were divided into two types of classrooms: project and comparison. The project classrooms received all of the support materials needed, such as a book library, professional pre-school curriculum, classroom coaching, professional development, college courses for instructors, planning and curriculum workshops and monthly parent meetings. The comparison classrooms received a library of children’s books and a monthly visit from a movement in music arts program.
Many of the students in the project classroom entered preschool as 3- or 4-year-olds with limited vocabularies, with the average 3-year-old scoring in the 5th percentile. Analysis by Research Assistant Professor Marcia O’Neal of a subgroup of treatment children who participated in the study for two years found that 3-year-olds in the treatment group gained almost 10 NCE points in the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test in the first year and almost 16 points after two years.
Considerable progress was made in the area of letter recognition. For example, at the beginning of the year, 4-year-olds recognized an average of seven uppercase letters. That number grew to 19 by spring. Another important part of the program was ensuring that classroom environments improved significantly during the year, facilitating an opportunity to read and write.
“Data indicates the project was very successful in meeting this goal,” Martin says. “Classrooms gained significantly in terms of the availability and use of books and other literacy resources, and teachers demonstrated skills that were considered supportive of reading and writing.”
Another important finding: Children who were in project classrooms did not experience as much loss in reading skills during the summer as the children who went to the preschool in the comparison classrooms. Part of that can be attributed to the environment those children were in — an important factor in determining reading success for a child, Martin says.
“Learning to read is hard because a child has to risk failure,” she says. “If a child has trouble, sometimes we say ‘Oh, he’ll grow in to it. He needs more time.’ Once a child experiences failure at something as important as reading it becomes a factor.
“He has to be encouraged to read.”